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Death takes a holiday from onstage depiction in Marjorie Prime, the new play by Jordan Harrison, a writer on Orange is The New Black. The same goes for grief and loss, though the drama is suffused with a piquant sense of all of them. Instead, the deceased appear only in the form of a computer program. Its aim is to provide solace by projecting the departed’s physical presence, based on detailed input from the bereaved.
This essentially Twilight Zone-like high concept thankfully eschews the hectoring metaphoric significance of Rod Serling, employing indirect suggestion to propel its characters through parlous emotional territory with a muted sense of inquiry and struggle. Nevertheless, the conceit’s allusive impact has been considerably blunted by too many similar sci-fi scenarios, not least in Spike Jonze‘s far superior Her.
Such surprises as Marjorie Prime does offer seem comparatively predictable, even stock. For all the dramatist’s admirable determination not to hammer home his points, he resorts far too often to sprints of explicit exposition, punctuated as they may be by inspired ellipses.
The narrative opens with elderly, frequently addled Marjorie (Lois Smith) tutoring “Walter Prime” (Jeff Ward), the new technological incarnation of her late husband, in his much younger years. Meanwhile, her taut daughter Tess (Lisa Emery) and her own empathetic husband Jon (Frank Wood) fret about how to deal with Marjorie’s degeneration, her reveries and receding recall. They also wrestle with how and whether to be training Walter Prime with additional biographical data that Marjorie cannot provide. Inevitably, of course, they are simultaneously both encountering and avoiding their own attitudes toward memory, mortality and the fraught prospect of future decline.
Harrison, who wrote the far stronger Futura, produced in 2010 at Boston Court, provides plenty of grace notes for his actors to play, along with the occasional eloquently awkward silence. But his reliance on generic dramaturgy often undermines his skills with dialogue and delicacy of mood. Please, playwrights (and screenwriters), can there not at long last be a moratorium on the ubiquitous gambit of a dead child either in the back story or, even worse, as a cathartic event?
Irrespective of the modest virtues and equally modest faults of the text itself, prolific director Les Waters, artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, has assembled an exemplary cast, wrenching optimal sensitivity from the material with great assurance of tone.
Smith’s more than 60-year stage career has been further enhanced with memorable filmed appearances from East of Eden to Five Easy Pieces to True Blood, and the opportunity to encounter her formidable yet supple gifts has always been a substantial treat.
But though her Marjorie may drive the action of the piece, Emery’s Tess emerges as its true protagonist and central dramatic figure. In complete command of the tensile brittleness required of her otherwise conventional character, Emery feels as emotionally present in every moment as does Smith. She creates a palpable belief that this contrasting personality is most definitely Marjorie’s daughter. Wood, saddled with the most bald pronouncements, however intelligent, still projects a tender, stalwart individuality that powers his characterization into sympathetic complexity.
Originally commissioned by Playwrights Horizons in New York, and further workshopped locally last year at South Coast Repertory’s Pacific Playwrights Festival, Marjorie Prime marshals a fine array of out-of-town talent. However, Smith’s star power notwithstanding, Center Theatre Group yet again ostentatiously avoids hiring from the plentiful pool of hugely capable Los Angeles players. The company’s association with the novel musical The Behavior of Broadus, currently running at the micro-house Sacred Fools, represents a positive step in that direction.
Venue: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
Cast: Lois Smith, Lisa Emery, Frank Wood, Jeff Ward
Playwright: Jordan Harrison
Director: Les Waters
Set designer: Mimi Lien
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Costume designer: Ilona Somogyi
Sound designer: Adam Phalen
Presented by Center Theatre Group
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek